Can managing a chimp win the World Cup?

By Jack Peat, Editor of The London Economic

Dr Steve Peters

Is Dr Steve Peters the key to World Cup success for England? 

England travel to Brazil this week with a secret weapon in their bag; a chimp management specialist.

The notion that psychology matters – particularly on the biggest stage – has become a focal point for professional sports teams across the country. From the terraces to the dugout we’ve long been aware of the psychological battles athletes endure – “their heads have gone down”, “his confidence is shot” – but perhaps haven’t truly understood its importance. At least, not until now.

Dr Steve Peters – the man who transformed the careers of Sir Chris Hoy, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Victoria Pendleton as well as guiding Liverpool FC to second place in the Premier League – has built quite a reputation in the sporting world and travels as part of Roy Hodgson’s entourage for Brazil 2014. As those who have worked with him will vouch, ‘chimp management’ could be our best chance of success.

48 years of hurt

Contrary to popular opinion, England rarely underperform on the big stage; they actually underperform in the big moments. In ‘96 we missed out on a spot in the final after missing glorious chances in extra time and sending our sixth penalty down the throat of Andreas Kopke after scoring the previous five. We reached the quarter finals of the World Cup in 2002 and 2006 and lost only five competitive matches between 2001 and 2006, yet had little to show for it. The first African World Cup was one to forget, but status quo was restored in 2012 after we were dismissed in the quarters by Italy, on penalties, of course!

This tells us that England can compete with the best of them, but in a tournament where games are decided by the roll of a dice, we’re struggling to contend in the heat of the moment. In the nanoseconds that saw Chris Waddle, Stuart Pearce or Gareth Southgate miss spot kicks and David Beckham and Paul Gascoigne lash their way into the referees’ pocket, one starts to see trends in the role temperament and mind-set plays in winning football matches.

The fear factor

“All you can ever do from my perspective with mental skills is try to tilt the probability that people will do better by not sabotaging events with their emotions or thinking or actions. Once you have stabilised that, it is up to them to deliver the performance.”Dr Steve Peters, BBC Sport.

Liverpool’s title quest might have ended in disappointment last month, but from a neutral’s perspective they lit up the league. They scored three or more goals on no less than 22 occasions throughout the season and took the ‘billionaire’s toy of Manchester’ to the wire trailing by a marginal two points to miss out on the league title. The key to their success was the lethal Suarez/ Sturridge partnership, the lightening pace of Coutinho and Sterling and the attacking, flowing diamond formation that created ‘sweeping’ football reminiscent of the great Arsenal teams.

But one formation that may have worked above all others is the 1-1-1, otherwise known as the Chimp Paradox.

The chimp is one of three elements of the brain and is often in conflict with the human part, creating a paradox. Irrational, anxiety-ridden and primeval-like, the chimp is the part of the brain that processes information first and is far stronger than the human component because it is primarily concerned with the preservation of the species. Thus, chimp-like behaviours such as reproduction, protection and survival often cloud our good judgement because information never reaches the ‘human’ component of the brain, which is rational and conscientious. The third part, ‘the computer’, stores information and experiences and often acts as a reference for our chimp and human, as well as being fed by them.

A hugely oversimplified evaluation of Dr Peters’ work of course, and if you have time I highly recommend his book that explains all this very well without befuddling you with complex terminology, but in ‘rationalising’ our brain’s patterns and thoughts, the process of Chimp Management could be the key to World Cup success this summer.

Chimp Management

Like it or not, the emotional, irrational chimp is something we have to live with. The ‘gremlins’ and ‘goblins’ that also display negative beliefs or behaviours are also a present and real part of our mind and can hugely impact our decision making and personality. These are the parts Dr Peters is training athletes to control, or rather, manage.

Speaking to CNN, Peters said athletes need to work on their mind as they would their technical skills or strength and conditioning. Just five or ten minutes a day can help keep the inner chimp at bay, and when the chimp is calmed, the fear, anxiety and other negative feelings that can overrun the mind in pressure situations such as a World Cup game are managed.

Of course, Steve is just one part of a growing backroom entourage that will accompany England in Brazil, but along with the statistical technicians and the physiotherapists he is prepping a team of world-class players to deliver in the big moments.

After all, we all know it will come down to a shootout.

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